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Fifteen men on a dead man’s medicine chest – the weird world of pirate medicine

19 September 2019

Ahoy there, mateys!  September 19 is Talk Like A Pirate Day!  This year it’s to raise money for families with childhood cancer, so we’ve hoisted our Jolly Roger in support!

Avast, here are some fun facts about pirate medicines to pass the time when your ship’s becalmed.

Scurvy bilge rats

If you were a pirate, you would spend long periods at sea.  After all, many ports would have military ships – not to mention the gallows.  This meant you were vulnerable to scurvy.

If we don’t get vitamin C for a long enough time, we begin to suffer from scurvy.  At first, your body aches and you feel tired and nauseous.  Then your gums bleed, your skin bruises like a banana, and your teeth fall out.  Eventually, scurvy is fatal.

We are one of the few animals that can’t make their own vitamin C.  We need to get it from our diet.  Usually, our vitamin C is from citrus fruits such as oranges and lemons.

lemons

Pirates usually ate bug-infested bread and dried meat, a combination that provided carbohydrates and protein but not much vitamin C.  Citrus fruits perish quickly, so citrus was not often part of the pirate diet.

bread

The Golden Age of Piracy is usually considered to be between 1650 and 1720, before the discovery of the connection between scurvy and citrus fruits.  Vitamin C itself was not discovered until the 1930s.

Scurvy could explain the typical pirate look – pale and splotchy skin, sunken eyes and missing teeth.

pirate

Peg leg Petes

saw

Whether it’s Captain Hook’s unfortunate skirmish with a crocodile or Long John Silver’s crutch, fictional pirates are known for amputated limbs.

One reason real pirates might lose a limb is gangrene, or the death of body tissue following an injury.  With little access to medical care, let alone medicine, on pirate ships, even a small injury could lead to gangrene.  Gangrene was fatal, so the only chance for a seriously wounded pirate was for the gangrenous limb to be amputated.

First the wounded pirate would get a drink of rum to numb the pain slightly.  Then the ‘surgeon’ would tie a tourniquet to the affected limb to stop the flow of blood.  Next the ‘surgeon’ would saw off the arm or leg.  A hot axe would cauterise the wound.  If there wasn’t a ‘surgeon’ on the ship, this job could be done by the carpenter, or even the cook.

If a pirate survived the amputation, they might get a prosthetic limb.  One pirate, François Le Clerc, lost his leg in a pirate raid and was afterwards known as Peg Leg

What about eyepatches?  For a long time these were believed to cover a lost eye, but some people now believe they could have been worn over a healthy eye so that pirates could have permanent dark vision.

X marks the spot

medicine chest

If you found a treasure map left by the pirate Blackbeard, your mind might swim with visions of jewels and Spanish doubloons.  Imagine your reaction if you dug it up and found bandages and ointments!

This isn’t as strange as it sounds.  In 1718, Blackbeard took hostages at Charlestown Harbor in America.  Rather than asking for gold or ammunition, the pirate demanded a medicine chest.

With injury and illness common in the dangerous life of a pirate, a well-stocked medicine chest could mean the difference between life and death.  They weren’t cheap, either.  The medicine chest the people of Charlestown delivered to Blackbeard would be worth about $50,000 today.

Even if you’re a pirate, the most precious treasure you can have is your health.